Portugal’s bullfighting tradition is on its knees; attendance has fallen by nearly half in the past decade. Now the stalwarts of the centuries-old practice are reaching out to children, hoping to turn them into future fans, to the dismay of animal rights advocates.
Blood was conspicuously absent at a recent bullfighting day at the Campo Pequeno arena in Lisbon, Portugal’s premier bullfighting venue.
It was a family affair, with children enjoying arena-shaped bouncy castles and demonstrations by apprentices of their bullfighting skills — though they stopped short of impaling the animals with lances called banderillas.
The event drew criticism from animal rights group Basta, which denounced the “exposure of children to the violence of bullfighting” as contravening a 2014 opinion by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Pedro Antunes, a bank employee who brought his five-year-old son Tiago to the event, saw things differently.
“I don’t go to a bullfight very often, but I wanted my son to see what it was like.
As the programme didn’t include anything violent, I thought this would be a good occasion to do so,” he said.
For Paulo Pessoa de Carvalho, president of Portugal’s bullfighting federation ProToiro, the event was intended “to restore the tie between the bull and Portuguese culture — and increase our audience”. He added that ProToiro wants to “create careers”.
Last year, about 380 000 people attended 173 bullfights in Portugal, according to the culture ministry’s general inspection of cultural activities. Basta claims that organisers inflate figures to hide the true scale of the decline in interest, and that the drop since 2009 is more than 42%.
Campo Pequeno, a stunning neo-Moorish building dating from 1892, underwent a six-year overhaul to become a multi-event venue, reopening in 2006 to host renowned bands as well as bullfights. An underground shopping centre, cinema and restaurants were added to the mix.
On Bullfighting Day, however, spectators occupied barely a third of the 7 000 seats. Children suited up in traditional matador costumes took a stab at fighting dummy bull heads mounted on wheels before returning to the stands. Then real bulls were let into the arena and the crowd enjoyed a demonstration of all aspects of Portuguese bullfighting — except the bloodletting with banderillas.
Killing the bull has been illegal in Portugal for 200 years. The “final act” in the modern spectacle involves a group of forcados, who together immobilise the bull with their bare hands, killing it only symbolically.
Late last year Culture Minister Graca Fonseca voiced her opposition to bullfighting, saying it was “not a question of taste but of civilisation”. The remark made ProToiro supporters see red; they demanded her resignation.
“Controversies are normal, but I think they come from a misunderstanding of bullfighting,” De Carvalho said. “We live in a politically correct era and we are giving in to the radicalism of a minority.”
Tiago said the spectacle didn’t scare him, and his face betrayed a mix of fascination and tension as he watched the interaction of man and beast in the bullring. But he clenched his eyes shut when the bull charged at the forcados. — AFP